THE Duchess of Pontecorvo left her automobile at the bottom of the hill on which the village of Roquebrune is situated, and, leaning on the arm of a lackey, began the ascent of the steep, narrow, winding roads leading through that fortress-town of the Maritime Alps. A visit to Roquebrune had become something habitual with the old lady on afternoons when the sky was bright and cloudless. She had found this picturesque nook — where the streets, paved with blue cobblestones, are often tunnels — some weeks before, and had advertised its beauties enthusiastically among all her friends. Every day she herself would go up from her villa to the esplanade in front of the village church, to enjoy a magnificent view of the sunset.
There was an clement of vanity in this daily climb. The duchess had discovered something unknown to the ordinary resident of the Mediterranean shore; and pride in her achievement made her quite forget the fatigue imposed upon her eighty years by the walk up those perpendicular streets of the mediaeval town, too narrow for a cart, and familiar with no other means of locomotion than the donkey or the mule used by visitors to the church.
The duchess was a decidedly flaccid, obese person. She could get along only with the help of a gold-headed bamboo cane bequeathed by her deceased husband, the Duke of Pontecorvo. On this walk, however, despite the chronic swelling of her feet, the Duchess moved with a certain sprightly youthfulness that had been passed on to her old age by the impatient, nervous energy of her mind.
A majestic, a Junoesque beauty, she must have been in her younger days. ‘A Marie Antoinette all over again,’her flatterers were still saying, even now, when she was old. Nevertheless, two deep lines fell from her sharp, aquiline nose upon the corners of her mouth, and her blue eyes were faded and watery. She habitually dressed in black, with an impressive, aristocratic sobriety. Curls of white hair, far too thick and lustrous to be genuine, strayed from under her bonnet. What at once struck the eye, however, the thing that had made her famous along the whole coast, was a necklace, the ‘Necklace of the Duchess,’ as it was familiarly called — five hundred thousand dollars’ worth of pearls, according to the estimates of people who were supposed to know! This necklace — a ‘dog-collar,’ in the jargon of the fashionable world — was a veritable corset for her neck and throat, flaming like one great jewel, and hiding in a blaze of glory any defects there may have been in the complexion of her wrinkly skin.
The duchess entered the church, which was quite deserted at that hour. The lackey left, her side and stood at respectful attention near a little door, swung out from one side of the building, and casting over the tiles a rectangle of blue shadow broken by flickering spots of sunlight as round and glossy as coins of gold. The footman never went beyond that point. The duchess preferred to be alone, sole sovereign of a domain that was hers by right of discovery.
The lady made her way through the church and stepped out through another door into a garden lined with palm trees. As she progressed, her cane tapped noisily on the red flagstones that rose and fell unevenly from years and years of exposure to sun and rain. The delight the duchess knew in this clerical retreat came from the charm of contrast. Everything here was different from the sleek, ornate, majestic elegance of her villa down below, on the edge of the great blue Mediterranean plain. On this mountain terrace, flowers were growing in wild freedom and profusion. Rose bushes, untrimmed, uncared-for, wove their branches and thorns and blossoms into one entrancing thicket of color and perfume. The trees, unpruned, crowded close upon one another, even intertwining their trunks to make strange, fantastic, almost human forms. Wild flowers, borne hither on the winds, were disputing the soil with garden plants. All around was one confused hum of insect life — ants, wasps, multi-colored beetles, crawling over the ground, climbing up anti down the tree-trunks, or flitting musically through the air.
What the duchess was really looking for, and enjoying in advance, was the wonderful view that opened just beyond the growth of trees, where, from a sort of natural balcony, she could look out from a great height upon the sea, and then down along the curving shore where the promontories of the Alps jut out, making gulfs and bays and peninsulas in the azure mirror. In the distance towered the mountains of Nice, peaks that stood out like blocks of ebony against the crimson afterglow. Nearer, on the seashore, rose the crag of Monaco, with the old city on its back. Then came the plateau of Monte Carlo, bristling with palaces and gardens. At her feet lay Cap Martin, where her own house was — a villa erected among the pine groves by the late Duke of Pontecorvo. Near by was the summer house of her friend and former patroness, the Empress Eugenie, with the residences of other princes and dethroned monarchs. There, also, was the huge palace of John Baldwin, an American iron king, who was regarded in those parts as one of the richest men in the world.
The old lady pushed her way through the shrubbery along the brink of the precipitous slope, in search of one particular spot from which the whole panorama of the Blue Coast spread out before her delighted eyes. There she could sit for an hour or more, watching the slow, placid death of the afternoon. No one surely would disturb her in that tranquil garden. There she could rest for a time, far away from all common cares of the world, take one delicious plunge, as it were, into the glory of the sunset, at an hour when the tend crest memories of t he past return, — thoughts of all that has been and will never be again, — like a sweet and melancholy music coming to the ear from far away, or a lingering perfume of dead flowers that will bloom no more!
There was something selfish in this daily recreation of the duchess. She was like some despot of music, who has an opera sung to an empty theatre while he sits alone there, lying back at his ease in the depths of an upholstered chair. The wondrous beauty of that dying sun, the purple mourning colors that draped the sky and the sea of that Mediterranean paradise were things she wanted all for herself. And in that garden she could have them.
On this occasion, when the duchess reached her favorite retreat, she noticed, with some traces of annoyance, that she was not, as usual, entirely alone. A smell of tobacco smoke mingled perceptibly with the fragrance of the flowers. She heard a cough behind the intertwining branches of the trees. A man had invaded her dominions and was enjoying the view which she had chosen to call her own.
The old lady was tempted to protest, as if a trespasser had ventured on property of hers. And yet, when the intruder appeared and stepped toward her, the expression of displeasure on her face changed to one of cordial greeting.
‘Oh, it’s you, Mr. Baldwin. I am so glad to see you here.’
Whenever, from time to time, John Baldwin, the American multimillionaire, came to spend a few weeks in the palace on Cap Martin, which he had bought through a newspaper advertisement, he attracted the attention of the whole Blue Coast. Though any number of forgotten celebrities — ex-premiers, dethroned monarchs, retired magnates — could be found in the small strip of territory that stretches between Cannes and Mentone, there was not a single ‘winterer’ on the Riviera comparable to him. The authorities were always soliciting his aid for public charities. Philanthropic organizations were forever sending the most important men of the native population to knock at his door in the interest of this or that good work. Every theatrical or musical function showed his name among its patrons. The omnipotent millionaire was something like a god, who never reveals himself to profane eyes, but makes his presence felt everywhere through his miracles.
Visitors to his beautiful palace were rarely received by him in person, though just as rarely, if they came for any defensible purpose, did they go away without some donation. The few who had met him personally would point him out as a real curiosity when he appeared on the boulevard in Nice, or in one of the gambling-rooms at Monte Carlo. ‘Do you know? That is Baldwin over there — Baldwin, the American millionaire!' Such information would usually be received with an exclamation of surprise. ‘What! Baldwin? That, Baldwin? Why, he looks as poor as a rat! ’
Baldwin, in fact, always dressed very plainly; and his habits were as simple as his clothes. Though his garages on Cap Martin held numerous automobiles of the most fashionable makes, he went almost everywhere on foot. He chose his secretaries for their refinement and good taste in dress. He seemed to enjoy being taken for the servant of the elegant secretaries who sometimes went with him on his walks.
People described him ordinarily as ‘the richest man on earth.’ Those who pretended greater intimacy with his affairs asserted that he had a million dollars on his checking account at the bank. When asked why he allowed such an enormous capital to lie idle, he would answer with a sigh of weariness. Money bored him so! What could he do with money? It was impossible to invest it in anything better than his own business; and since his various enterprises in mining and manufacturing had already reached their maximum development and were in need of no further capital, why should he worry?
The Duchess of Pontecorvo had known Baldwin ever since he became her neighbor on Cap Martin — the friendship of an old lady, famous in her time, but now forgotten, with a rich man whose name was a catchword throughout the world. The duchess had found times much changed since the days of her youth. Countries where she had been intimate with royalty had become republics. In the present democratic age, millionaires like Baldwin were the real lords of the earth. She herself had spent the larger part of her former fortune on the careers of her children, and for years had been living a life of gilded poverty, which allowed only infrequent excursions from her villa on Cap Martin.
That is why the aged aristocrat felt the greatest respect for this potentate of a younger age; and that is why she smiled so cordially when she discovered that the intruder on her solitude was the American millionaire. Hitherto she had seen him at social gatherings, of an afternoon, in sombre palace halls, where the lighting was controlled by older hostesses, careful to avoid the glaring, indiscreet rays of unobstructed sunlight. Now, here he was before her in the open air, and in that garden where trees and stones seemed to have halos of green around them, so intense was the golden radiance dripping from the sky.
She was eighty, and he was quite as old, if not, as the duchess suspected, a few years older. But he was still a strong man, one of those hard, wiry, elastic persons on whom the storms of the years beat as on a marble temple, roughening the surface, perhaps, but powerless to break them down. Old age seemed to have toughened John Baldwin, throwing a wrapper of parchment, as it were, around him, an armor proof against disease and impenetrable to the shafts of death. His dark-blue suit had been cut to fit him; yet he seemed to move about in it as if it had been made for another person. The slenderness of his neck emphasized the massive structure of his head — a prominent, bulging forehead, a strong, protruding lower jaw, evidences of intelligence and will, remnants of a vigorous youth, which the deep lines of his aged face had not been able to obscure.
And his eyes, also! His eyes were as bright as they had ever been. It was easy to guess how they must have flashed in his angry moments as a youth. They looked out upon you with the piercing, disconcerting glare that belongs to men who are masters of men. In them one could see the secret of his great worldly success. And yet their outlines were somewhat softened now by a trace of gentleness and kindliness. They suggested willingness on a fighter’s part to forget the struggles of the past.
At sight of the duchess, Baldwin threw away the smashed and muchchewed cigar-butt he had been smoking.
‘How do you happen to be here? ’ the duchess asked, offering her hand in cordial greeting.
‘Oh, one of my friends told me about the view from here. He heard you describe it so enthusiastically the other day! I thought I would come and have a look at it myself. You are right, madame! It is wonderful!’
They sat down on a rustic bench of tree-trunks, looking out over the sea at their feet, the villages along the shore, and the distant foothills of the Alps. Automobiles, like so many insects, were running along the thread-like roadways visible far down at the foot of the hills. A train was in sight on the FrancoItalian railroad, though at that distance the locomotive seemed to be puffing in silence and there was no rumbling of the wheels. In fact, the stillness of the garden was broken only by the tinkling of little bells that came from a herd of goats grazing along the slopes below the garden — a soft, mellow tinkling, like the ring from a Venetian glass. The sea had turned to a more subdued azure, less harsh on the eyes than previously in the blinding deluge of light rained upon it from the sun.
‘ Yes, it is beautiful! ’ said the duchess after a long pause. ‘It is wonderful!’
As they sat there in silence, the full solemnity of the dying day came over them. ‘What a pity it is,’ Baldwin observed, ’that we have to wait till we are old before we can enjoy the deepest and sweetest pleasures of life! When we are young, we are always worried about things. We are looking forward all the time. Our hopes and ambitions blind our eyes to the things actually present before us. I imagine that many of the men I used to know, if they could rise from their graves on the other side of the ocean and come here now, would be surprised to see old man Baldwin stopping to look at a landscape and actually enjoying it, without a thought for the ups and downs of exchange!’
The duchess nodded without clearly foreseeing what her companion was about to say.
‘I imagine that you, too,’ he continued, ‘have had to wait for the years to go by before you could take a really true delight in the beauties of Nature; though women, as a rule, are born more poetic, more sentimental, than men, and when they are young, furthermore, have more time to devote to what are called “higher” things. I am sure you are enjoying what you see before you quite as much as you used to enjoy a soirée at the Tuileries.’
Again the duchess nodded, quite flattered that the powerful personage at her side should take an interest in her humble self. Something of her vanished coquetry came to life again. Baldwin, the richest man in the world, had come to visit that remote garden just because she had praised it to one of his friends! These new bourgeois upstarts of the day were not so hard, so lacking in all feeling, as she had been told. She began to talk of her past as if the aged American were an old friend of hers,
‘You are right,’ she said. ‘The life I am leading now is not so brilliant as the life of gayety I led when I was young. But it has its consolations. You see, I have suffered a great deal in my time, Mr. Baldwin. People’s lives are something like houses, are n’t they? You have to live in them before you know what they really are.’
The American millionaire had heard many stories about the career of the duchess in the old days. She had been a very interesting person; and he began to listen to her story attentively.
The Duchess of Pontecorvo was a Spanish woman, by birth distantly related to the Empress Eugenie. She had come to Paris to join the galaxy of beauties that revolved around the magnificent sovereign in the Tuileries. Her family, of the ancient Spanish nobility, had long since been ruined; so the Empress tried to arrange a suitable marriage for her protegee with some important personage in France. The man in whom the young lady showed greatest interest was a general in Napoleon’s army, who had just, received a litle of duke — Duke of Pontecorvo — for a victory his division had won in the wars in Italy.
The duchess made no mystery of the incompatibility of taste and temperament between herself and the rough soldier she finally married. But life at court was so gay that domestic troubles were not terribly oppressive. She had found life quite tolerable. When the Empire fell, and all the brilliant life that centred around the Court in Paris came to an end, the marshal died of a broken heart. He could not survive the overthrow of the Emperor and the shock of the great disaster of 1870. Two children, boys, had been born to the duchess. They in turn had set up new families and carried off the greater part of their father’s fortune.
To escape unpleasant contrasts between her former splendor and the modest way in which she now had to live, the widowed duchess went to Cap Martin, intending to spend the rest of her life in the palace that had been her vacation home in the days of her splendor. There she could live in company with old friends from earlier times, without obtruding the decline in her resources.
The Empress was a not infrequent visitor to the Riviera. When Eugénie came to Cap Martin, she would pay a visit to the duchess; and the two old ladies, dressed in their widow’s weeds, would talk of the happy days gone by. But now the Empress was dead; and the passing of that lifelong friend brought home to the duchess the short time that must be left before she too passed on.
Only one memento was still left from her really brilliant youth—her necklace, the ‘Necklace of the Duchess,’ a jewel so closely identified with her fame that to dispose of it would be a public declaration of poverty.
‘You are right, Mr. Baldwin,’ she continued. ‘Old age does have its pleasures. I am now well acquainted with something that I never knew before— peace, quiet, tranquillity. I have no ambitions left, of course. I have so restricted my daily needs that there is hardly a thing in the world I really want. Life does not call to me with the vibrant voice that it used to have before. At the same time it is without the old sorrows and the old worries. At our age, for instance, there is no such thing as love; but yet, there is friendship! And how much more wonderful and lasting than love that sometimes is! You can’t imagine what a beautiful woman, a woman whom many, many men desire, has to go through in life. You live in a state of perpetual alarm. You are afraid to venture on the slightest intimacy with a man. The moment one appears, you come to regard him as a possible enemy. The life of a great beauty is like that of the commander of a fortress under siege: she never has a moment’s rest!
‘For the first time in my life I am free to enjoy friendship, comradeship, with men. That is something I never knew when I was young. It was a great surprise to me to find that a man need not necessarily be a torment! But at our age, you see, people are not men and women. They are friends, companions, comrades. When passion is once out of the way, all the other beauties of the human soul come more into evidence and seem more attractive in our eyes.
‘Of course, sometimes, when I see a pretty, charming, popular young girl, I remember my own days of triumph, and feel a flash of envy; but I soon get over that. Why envy them? Some day they will be old, too. They will reach the point that I have reached. The fact is, I suppose, one can be really selfish when one is old. One can just live, and feel all the delights of just living — something that a young person never dreams of. Believe me, Mr. Baldwin, I am not at all sorry that I am eighty years old; and I am glad to see that you, after your long and active life, feel as I do about it.’
‘Well, yes,’ the old man replied, musing sadly; ‘yes — if only we could always be old! But there’s death, is n’t there?’
The animation with which the duchess had been speaking vanished from her face, and there was a tremor of sadness in her voice as she replied: —
‘Yes, that is true. There’s death! We old people have not very long to live!’
There was a long silence. Then the old man expressed aloud all that he had been thinking while the duchess was telling the story of her life. He, too, found a strong contrast between the present and the past; but he did not regret his retirement, after a life so full of energy that the greatest business men in the world had considered him the type of the man of action. After all, there was no reason why he should go on working forever. What could he do that he had not already done? There was really no role left for John Baldwin to play in the comedy — the tragedy — of life. And yet he went on living, because there is something in us that makes us want to live, quite aside from all the calculations and conveniences of men!
‘You have no idea, duchess, of the real extent of my business enterprises. People call me rich; but that word gives no adequate idea of the wealth I actually have. Half the world would have to go bankrupt before I could be entirely ruined. I have to think up devices for restricting the growth of my income. I leave enormous sums of money lying idle in the banks just because I have more money than I can possibly use. I find it annoying to have so much around.
‘I say I have seen everything, and where I have not been I could easily be to-morrow, if I thought it worth while. But none of the things that attract men ordinarily have any charm for me now. I am so old that I see the futility of all the varieties of human vanity. I have no children, and my one concern is to find ways to invest my money where it will do some good after I am gone.
‘Well, I have founded libraries, museums, and universities. I have endowed charitable organizations — though my reason tells me that charity is of no particular use in this world. I spend my money often without examining the bases of the requests that are made of me. I am tired of buying pictures and subsidizing books that do not pay. I am also tired of giving money for the progress of science and invention. Good enough, in their way, such things — when you are young and enthusiastic, and believe in the future! Now I have no enthusiasm about anything; and as for the future — ’
The old man fell silent for a time. Then he resumed, in a voice not untouched with rancor: —
‘As for the future, the future does interest me, to tell the truth, the way exciting business propositions interested me when I was young. Sometimes, when I meet ragged newsboys on the street, or little cowherds on the mountainsides, I feel a sort of jealous anger at them. They are so young, those little shavers! They are sure to live so much longer than I can ever live! “Ah, you little rogues,” I say to myself, “you will be here to see things that I shall have no chance to see.” The thought makes me feel how useless money is, how absurd the respect it inspires in everyone! The famous John Baldwin, for all his two billions, is worth, in terms of future experience, less than a little beggar who crawls along on all fours to pick up the cigar-butt you are throwing away!
‘We are living in 1920. Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering what things will be like when you double the twenty part of it—1940! What are twenty years for any of the young people who are now around us? They are so sure of living that long, that they are ready to risk their chance on it for a passing moment’s pleasure. And I, John Baldwin, who have stood before the kings of the earth, and am a king myself so far as money and power are concerned, could not for all my wealth buy those twenty years, if I took into my service all the intelligence and science in the world.’
The two old people lapsed into silence again.
‘I have seen everything,’ Baldwin finally resumed, ‘and I have had everything. For that very reason life has no more attractions for me. And yet I still want to live! The certainty that I am soon to die angers me, depresses me, beyond endurance. I suppose it is the idleness of my retirement that makes me think of such things now, and emphasizes reality as it is. The old days were days of struggle. There were obstacles to overcome, problems to solve. There is a kind of poetry in youth, and poetry disguises things, throws a veil of illusion over them, so that the dreamer never sees them as they really are. In my case it was the thirst for power; and the pursuit of power was an absorbing, an inspiring preoccupation. Now that everything has come to me, the enchantment is gone. I see the framework of fatuity that underlies human existence; and on that my eyes, by a strange perversity of old age, are fixed. It is as if a man saw only the skeleton under the beauty of an attractive woman.
‘I remember how anxiously I used to wait for the outcome of enterprises that meant success or total ruin for me. I have lost four fortunes in my time. More often it was a great triumph. Now, the arrival of a cablegram fails to give me the slightest thrill. Whatever the message it contains, I know it will make very little difference in the mass of my possessions or achievements. Most people, when they have fought a long battle to make a fortune, have to make a second and sometimes harder fight to keep what they have earned. I am beyond all such worries. My victory has been so overwhelming, so complete, that my wealth stands there on its own feet, and a generation of the world’s activities could hardly overthrow it. Well, there you are! What have I to live for?’
The duchess, in her humble way, had many pet charities in which she was always trying to interest her more fortunate society friends. She was going to mention one of them when she remembered what the great American had said some moments before. Baldwin did not believe in charity, though he practised it in a more or less casual way, giving money to those who asked for it just because they asked for it. Besides, she was loath to break in with any commonplace advice on what was obviously a despairing confession on the part of the old man, prompted by the melancholy beauty of the afternoon.
‘I have no hopes unrealized, no desires unsatisfied,’ he continued. ‘Yet I don’t want to die. Death seems to me something insulting, something unworthy of me, something beneath my dignity as a man. Strange, is n’t it? Everything in life is so complicated, so mysterious, so hard to understand. Nothing is ever simple. The moment we go beyond the obvious Occupations of everyday life, things become involved beyond our comprehension. Death, for instance — Well, people have been talking about death for thousands and thousands of years, everybody saying the same things, so that we have hundreds of trite expressions and aphorisms, which we repeat mechanically without thinking even of what they mean. It is only when we get old and find death right before us that we see fate in its actual outlines, and come to understand the full measure of human misery.
‘Some people find consolation in the fact that death is the great leveler, that death represents democracy, equality. Well, that reflection may be of some use to the millions of unfortunates who have got nothing out of life. For such, death may represent the revenge of those who have failed, the satisfaction of those who are envious of others. But that is not my case. I am one of the successful men. What have I to gain by death?
‘The thought of death as a long, refreshing sleep, the slumber that restores our wearied strength, is just as meaningless. The man who lies down to sleep knows that he will wake up again in the morning. Death as sleep is a fancy of religion, the great consoler of human ignorance. At best, the notion is but a hope, a prophecy, that may or may not be fulfilled. We are not sure that the night of death will ever break into a new dawn!
‘The poets have compared death to winter-time, a period of cold and silence, preceding and preparing the rebirth of springtime, the splendor and exuberance of summer. That, also, is a guess, a speculation, an attempt to snatch a grain of consolation from the infinite unknown.’
The sun was just touching the higher peaks of the western mountains, casting a dust of golden rose along the horizon, and unwinding a sash of violet and blue along the sea-line to the south. Some of the peaks seemed to be catching fire from a gigantic furnace flaming beyond and within them. The old man pointed his cane at the sinking sun.
‘The death of the sun is not death at all. That sun knows that he will rise to-morrow morning in the east, and retraverse the path of glory he has followed for thousands and thousands of centuries. I imagine that is why, each evening, he bids us farewell so gloriously. He reminds one of a great actor who does a great death-scene on the stage, with his mind on the midnight supper he is to have in the cafe an hour later. No, we do not die like that. With us it is once and for always; and what makes matters worse, almost, is that, when we get ready to depart, we see others in the full flush of youth coming on to take our places.
‘Sometimes I envy the great trees in the forest. They die so slowly and so resignedly. They keep the ground underneath them dark. There are no impudent saplings rising in the shade, to taunt the agony of the giant with his helplessness. Human beings are not so fortunate. Decrepitude comes over us, while the young people about us are beaming with the radiant prospects of their long futures.’
The duchess was listening attentively, because she judged that everything that such a celebrity thought and said must be important. Nevertheless, all that brooding over death disquieted her. Could n’t he talk on some more pleasant subject? Had n’t he heard any new gossip about the people living along the coast? There was that young woman in the house on the Cape. Did n’t he know what people were saying about her? Why should old people worry about death, anyhow? Death comes to them soon enough without their troubling to send a special invitation!
When the duchess timidly ventured this last reflection, Mr. Baldwin showed himself the man of authority, the man accustomed to holding the floor at directors’ meetings. He did not choose to be distracted from his line of thought. He went on talking, but in a lower voice, and with his eyes on the ground, as if he were embarrassed in advance by the complaint he was to make against destiny.
‘Human life reminds me of a badly managed piece of business, where the superintendent is either a lunatic or a malicious fool. Life never succeeds in doing what it undertakes to do. When we are young, we work to make our way in the world. We set out after glory and wealth. In attaining them, we waste the years when the possession of them would do us any good. We find success when we are old, at a time when success and failure are much the same thing. The years when we might enjoy them are years usually of sacrifice and renunciation.
’Just imagine, duchess! For years and years I worked like a dog, shut up in dark offices or in smoky factories, when, outside, the sun was shining and the gardens were in flower. Now, when I have everything, I can even improve on Nature, if she does n’t satisfy me. I can make a paradise out of a desert. Do you know that many women who found me impossible when I was young, I could now persuade to love me, old and decrepit as I am? Money is a wonderful thing, duchess —when you don’t have it!
‘People all consider themselves immortal. A man knows all along that some day he is going to die; but death is always a concern for some future day. It is never real to the moment! We find it natural that other people should die. As for ourselves, death is something incredible, almost impossible. The young people of the present would not understand us if they heard us talking now. They will have to wait till they get older, to know the full misery of human life. But when their turn comes, they will moralize as we are doing, and prove justas unintelligible to the generation after them.
‘People like to delude themselves. They refuse to think of death in the midst of their happiness.'
At this point the duchess broke in, to emphasize the necessity of illusion, without which life would be impossible. The old man agreed.
‘Yes,’he said, ‘we must deceive ourselves in order to go on living. We all pass through life on the wings of some dream or other — all of us, even those who seem furthest removed from any kind of sentiment. You think me a hard man, don’t you, duchess? Well, all my life long I have been chasing a will-o’the-wisp, living on an illusion that in every moment of trial has given me strength and courage to push on.’
Baldwin reviewed the story of his life from the days of the Civil War, when he had thrown up a promising business position to become a soldier. When, after the war, he had saved his first thousand dollars, he went to Europe, and was in Paris once during the later years of Napoleon’s reign, at the time of the famous Exposition.
‘That was where I saw you first, duchess, when all Paris was talking about your beauty, your splendor, the magnificence of your entourage.'
‘O Mr. Baldwin!’ the duchess interrupted, very much flattered. ‘What a pity you were never introduced! It would have been so delightful to know you when you were young.'
‘I should never have been received,’Baldwin replied. ‘I was a young fellow, vigorous, and not bad-looking, perhaps; but something far less presentable than the old man you see before you. I was very poor then, and struggling for an education. I had nothing of what is called breeding. My hands were rough and calloused from manual toil. No, it did n’t even occur to the John Baldwin of those days that he could have a place at one of your receptions. I was content with standing on the sidewalk, lost in the Exposition crowds, on the chance that the Emperor would pass that way in an open carriage, with the Empress at his side, and, in attendance on her, the Duchess of Pontecorvo, then in the full effulgence of her youth and beauty.’
‘O Mr. Baldwin!’ the Duchess said again, looking at the ground, while a faint blush overspread her pale wrinkled cheeks.
‘Well,’the American continued, ‘that is when I saw you first; and, do you know, I have never forgotten you all my life long! You see, boys have to fix their eyes on some great goal, on something far above them. The more unattainable the goal, the better; for, if it is quite out of reach, the illusion they hang on it will never be disturbed by contact with cold realities. You were that inaccessible pinnacle to me. You will excuse me, duchess! We are both of us now of an age when we can say things without any of the restraints proper to the young. Yes, you! In my time of danger and struggle, three ambitions were always in my mind, three goals that were to be the reward of victory. I wanted, first, an enormous, palatial residence surrounded by a tremendous park. I wanted a yacht big enough to sail any sea on earth. And my third ambition — of course, it was really my first, the one most persistently before my mind — was to have for a wife either a woman like the Duchess of Pontecorvo, or the Duchess of Pontecorvo herself!
‘And, you see, life often affords unexpected bounties that it seemed quite mad to dream of in advance. As for that palace, I have a dozen of them scattered here and there about the world. As for the yacht, I could build a fleet of them, if I weren’t bored to death with the three I already have in one port or another of the United States and Europe. It is the third ambition that I never realized. The one thing that John Baldwin failed to attain in his triumphant existence was the Duchess of Pontecorvo!’
‘O Mr. Baldwin!’ the duchess repeated in a great flutter of effusiveness. ‘O Mr. Baldwin, how funny!’
‘And I suppose the reason why that illusion has always been with me is because I failed in winning her. I can honestly say, duchess, that I have thought of you every moment of my life. A man like me has work to do, work that often leaves little leisure for sentimental broodings. But I am able to affirm that in the few moments of repose I have had, every time I was able to let my fancy wander as it listed, the first picture inevitably to come into my mind was the memory of you.
’I married, of course, and I loved my wife, I am sure. She was a good woman, an excellent housewife, a charming, delightful comrade; but the flare, the glory of my dream of love always lingered about your image; and I believe it was in that that I found the stimulus to go on with my work. I understood in a certain way that the beauty of my dream lay in the fact that it would never come true. That is why I never tried to find you when I had become a really successful man. I was old, you see, and you could not have been very young. Your children had grown up and established families of their own. You were long since a grandmother. What would have been the use? Why destroy the last illusion left me?’
He stopped for a second, while the duchess studied his face with interest, struggling apparently to reconstruct before her mind’s eye the image of the American millionaire as he must have been in those youthful days.
’O Mr. Baldwin!’ she said again, ‘why did n’t you declare yourself?’
The old man, absorbed in the thread of his own thoughts, seemed not to be listening.
‘I did n’t try to find you because I was afraid you might have changed in the meantime. Now — it does n’t matter! You have changed, if I may say so; and I have changed, changed immensely. There is little left of the John Baldwin who used to stand on the sidewalk in Paris and watch you go by. We are two old people who have outlived their real lives. The woman I am speaking of is the woman I can still see in my imagination. In my mind no time has passed, and fashions have not changed. The only Duchess of Pontecorvo that I shall ever really know is a woman in a hooped crinoline skirt, in the style of the Empress Eugenie and the other ladies of the Imperial Court. — And that is the only duchess I care to know. For that is the woman who was loved as few women are ever loved, loved by a poor young American, who likewise has passed away — a love whose principal charm was its unselfishness; a love never to be requited because it was never to be revealed!’
‘O Mr. Baldwin!’ the old lady repeated in a trembling voice, as if she were about to weep; ‘why did n’t you speak? Why did n’t you tell me then what you arc telling me now?’
Baldwin shrugged his shoulders. He had a clearer, a more accurate sense of reality than she. He understood that what now seemed to this old woman an unpardonable oversight, she would have regarded in those days as an unpardonable presumption.
The sun had set, leaving a patch of pale rose upon the mountain-tops, the last trace of its departed glory. The evening star was twinkling in the luminous trail that still brightened the western sky. The eastern horizon above the Italian mountains was deepening to an intenser blue, through which, fainter still, a few stars were struggling to appear. A breeze had begun to blow down from the mountains, setting the leaves of the garden astir on its way out to wrinkle the placid mirror of the sea. The old duchess seemed not to notice. Her mind was on other things.
‘Why didn’t you speak then?’ she insisted. ‘It would have been so interesting! Why didn’t you declare yourself?’
Baldwin again shrugged his shoulders; for now the illusion was quite dead, and it had been dead for a long time. He had spoken only under the impulsive need for confession that we all seem to feel at certain moments. Ever since he had found the duchess living near him on Cap Martin he had been intending to make this revelation to her. That, perhaps, was what had impelled him to pay a visit to the garden of the church. But, once confessed, the weight had been lifted from his soul and — life never goes backward; peace be with the dead!
But the woman, more responsive to sentimental things, was unwilling to forget. She clung to the illusion as if it were a life-raft come to her hand in the torrent of time that was sweeping her so rapidly toward eternity. Besides, her feminine vanity had been aroused from its sleep of half a century. A declaration of love at eighty! And from the most powerful man in the world!
Baldwin coughed. The evening wind was chilling him.
‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘At, our age it is not quite safe to catch cold.’
He gave one last look at the crimson afterglow. ‘The sun has gone,’he said. ‘To-morrow he will return, and the next day, and the next. But when we sink below the horizon of life — ’
The duchess took his arm, and began to walk back along the path to the church, her bamboo cane beating rhythmically on the flagstones. Quite unconscious of everything around her, she seemed not to hear what her companion was saying. She had gone far back into the past — and how delightful those memories were!
They pushed their way through the bushes of the garden, lowering their heads to avoid the hanging branches.
‘Why did you not declare yourself?’ she kept repeating. ‘Why did you not tell me then what you have just told me now? ’